Telecanter wrote an unbeatable one-line campaign pitch. I stir in Central Asia
So Telecanter wrote this typically inspiring post, the final line of which is undiluted adventurous expectancy:
A city of ancient magic users so corrupted that mages only visit it through constructs and familiars. Constructs battles constructs for glowing relics.
Oh sure, you say: sounds like ASE or Encounter Critical! or even the fabled city of Carcosa itself, rippling uncertainly out there past the blasted plain McKinney gave us to wallow in. With a dash of Battletech.
I say it’s all of these and more (notably, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace*), mixed up and plopped down on one enormous hex map. I say I may finally have found my very own dungeoneering rabbit-hole right here, my League of Extraordinary inter-genre gates. And alas I only have 30 minutes to write it up today. But I’m going to, because (a) I promise to return to this topic, so this will be the umbrella post (tag: Baikonur) and (b) I’ll be too busy to post at all for the next 2 weeks, so I want to leave you with something evocative and links-rich rather than something ranty or scattershot.
I’ve said before that I don’t want to run a game in pseudo-medieval Europe. Don’t get me wrong, I like it there, but you guys have it covered. No, my go-to place for Anomalous Shenanigans and Excitement is Khorasan and Mawarannahr, known to its current divested imperialist overlords and satraps as “Central Asia.” Partly because it has an immensely rich and mostly ignored (in English) history of its own, partly because it has suffered apocalypses and post-apocalypses the like of which we prefer not to dream about even in our fantasies, but mostly because as a benighted western Orientalist I can imagine really wild things happening there (like Lovecraft placing Leng in Tibet – where it gets a flavour he couldn’t have written into it himself).
And pancaking its whole history into one unbaked brick gives us a fertile ground for an actually coherent, flailsnailulous genre-hopping campaign world. Because the cities of pre-modern CA – like Samarkand, Khiva, Kashgar – are Arabian Nights points of light: walled citadels in the desert, fed by hanging gardens and watered from hundreds of miles away by underground networks of pipes. Mutually suspicious, they each struggle to develop their own technologies hidden from the others. And the landscape is pretty much the Platonic ideal of wilderness, whether you want it to stand in for the Western’s Painted Desert, for icy tundra or for the steppes (which it mostly isn’t, actually). It is, after all, where the prototypical barbarians came from. But mostly because in that landscape there is a multitude of weird anti-oases, from constantly burning gas craters to dried up seas and stranded ships to… exactly those things Encounter Critical is on about. Peasants scavenging rocket boosters to sell their ultratech alloys – because the boosters were dropped right on their goat pastures and nobody else seems to want to go near them.
Which brings me to Telecanter’s one-liner. A city so corrupted that the mages will no longer go there in person, but send constructs. And, of course, hapless and desperate adventurers. Because at the blank heart of this blank space on the map we find Baikonur (hedged about, natch, by false Baikonurs…)
Which may or may not be so bad in reality, but in our fantasy Central Asia it takes on shades of Pynchon‘s hallucinatory vision of Peenemunde – maybe even becomes part of an unholy trinity, together with Pripyat and Berzengi, Empty Palace of the Mad Archmage. These are the hot sites – the ones still too toxic to have been picked clean. To get to them you have to pass through their outlands – their Leng plateaux and mutagenic caves, where you can pick up some dinosaur-riding sherpas who know the way to the edge of the glass plain, unless you can hitch a ride on the villaintrain or swipe a patrol vehicle.
Of course, even the long-dead cold sites might still be hot – and have pickings – underground. Which brings me at last to Merv. From 1050 to 1150 (ahem Wessex) Merv was one of the brightest centres of the enormous and technologically vibrant Seljukid Empire, ruled by a series of double acts featuring Conan-type Barbarian Kings “assisted” by ingenious, obsequious Persian Viziers. Until it was utterly destroyed by the Mongols in 1220. After that it became pretty much exactly Beedo’s Black City – a massive ruin with a little living settlement clinging to its side – a megacity megadungeon collapsing into the scrub. Later interpreters have scavenged it for those things their ancient books and scrolls have told them about – things which may themselves turn out to be rather hallucinatory** – but they haven’t known what to do with the buildings that they can’t classify. Which is most of them, and definitely all the craziest, most fun ones:
Check out especially recent digitization work on the Greater Kyz Kala (translation: “big fort-like thing we still don’t know what it is”) and the ice house (for keeping ice, for your refreshing sherbets, obviously, for when it’s 110 degrees F outside).
Finally, in case you were bored by that whole thing, here: fighting pirates with airships. For reals. And for the Cthulhu-minded, I see the Russians have just drilled into an underground lake in Antarctica in hopes of finding a “truly alien” environment. Countdown to Shoggoth starting… NOW.
* check out this gallery of localisation covers for the novel. I like how everyone conforms to their stereotypes: America predictably goes with the image of the car turned horse carriage, the French are doing something vaguely sexy that I don’t remember in the book, and Russia goes typographic (I mean, really, with this material?) but it’s the Serbian edition that wins.
**mmmyeah, ask me about that another time…